gamut (2006-09)

As everyone who moved here last year knows, it never really snows in Knoxville.

I have little choice but to agree. We just get little frostings now and then. A flurry or two. It’s Tennessee, after all. It’s the sunny South. Still, I could have sworn we used to get some real snow.

Memory can play tricks on you, but it seems to me that during my childhood in the ’60s and early ’70s, a good, solid snow of at least three inches every single winter was a given. It was as sure as the leaves falling, and cherry pie at school on Washington’s Birthday, and at least one bad cold.

It was disappointing if we didn’t get at least three road-covering, school-closing snows between Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. If it snowed again after that, as it sometimes did, well, that was icing on the ice.

And they weren’t just piddly little snows. I didn’t count it as a real snow unless it covered the streets without melting, unless it obliterated every evidence of grass or dirt, unless it blanketed everything. Some were knee-deep. Some were snows on top of snows, the sort that when you walked on them, you’d crunch down one layer to the next.

Every year seemed to bring at least one snow that was moist and fluffy, good for snowman-building, and at least one that was hard and icy, good for sledding. It was in the contract. God wanted us to enjoy both activities every year. A winter in Knoxville with no snows of either sort was absurd; impossible; unconscionable. I would have suffered a crisis of faith.

And White Christmas wasn’t just a song. I grew up thinking of it as something that really happened.  Not every year, maybe, but often enough that we still had vivid memories of the last one when the next one came.

Some snows took more than a couple of days of warm weather to melt. The glaciers formed on some street corners by the snow-scrapers would stay there for days, melting slowly. On clear days you’d hear cold water trickling into the storm drains constantly. It was the sound of a warm day in winter in Knoxville.

But maybe all that was just a self-delusion. This is Knoxville, Tennessee, the South. It doesn’t ever snow here. Everybody tells me that. It doesn’t snow here, and that’s why Knoxvillians freak out every time snow is forecast, with an inaccuracy that’s seemingly inevitable. That’s why we pillage the stores of milk and bread to prepare for what turns out to be a half-day of slush. That’s why we cancel school for everybody, even students who never saw one snowflake unmelted on city pavement, because of rumors of slick spots in the hinterlands.

Still, these incongruous memories persist.

Hiking through foot-deep snow to go to school is the cliché, the favorite exaggeration of elders. Does every generation tell tales of more extravagant snows in the past? You might think it was a matter of the real world getting smaller as we get bigger. Anyone who has revisited an elementary school or an aunt’s house for the first time since age 12 is familiar with the phenomenon. The real world is smaller than it once seemed.

Maybe the snows of yesteryear, witnessed as they were by ourselves when we were four feet tall, seemed bigger than they really were. Maybe what I’m remembering is a heavy frost or a flurry or maybe some sleet.

Still I remember white snow covering the streets, breaking trees, bending gutters, and adults unable to drive without first strapping chains to their tires. And we could make snowmen and snowballs, clean ones not full of leaves and dirt and gravel. I remember making snowballs until they were too big for several kids to push, and them being perfectly clean and white. And, more important than anything, I remember snows that allowed for sledding.

Some of my memories are hard even for me to believe. After that holiday snow when I was 11, I remember visiting friends, sledding down the steep hill at Oakhurst Drive at Kingston Pike. At the top of the hill, we built a bonfire. On Kingston Pike. Nobody gave us a hard time about it. There was no traffic at all, and nobody to see it who wasn’t enjoying the party. We were pretty sure the police couldn’t get there, anyway.

Maybe it was because the ice was slicker, maybe there were fewer four-wheel drives—but in those days, hardly anybody even attempted to drive in a deep snow, and anyone who did was considered both a dope and a spoilsport. Not only was it nearly impossible without sliding into a ditch, but driving on icy roads too much ruined the ice for sledding, which is what we believed God intended it for. Snow drivers were not only dopes and spoilsports; they were also blasphemers. If anyone drove up a good sledding hill with chains, we would stand there and glare. Maybe lob a few snowballs at them. The driver may have thought they were random, but they weren’t. They were political statements. During snow holidays, the streets were for fun, not for anything as mundane as transportation.

Years later, in college, I remember two or three occasions when 17th Street was so slick with snow and ice that students were able to slide down it without sleds. Skiing down in hiking boots, sledding down on a naugahyde sofa.

Snow seemed to start slacking off some in the 1980s. I was working at Whittle Communications in the late ’80s with several colleagues, mostly from up north, who’d lived in Knoxville for a couple of years without seeing much snow. They’d heard forecasts, for it, though, and made fun of how spooked Knoxvillians got about snow, how we didn’t want to drive in it, how we didn’t show up for work even if it was just a little frosty. I took umbrage at some of their assumptions.

Then we got a pretty big one. Snow covered the streets in my hilly neighborhood. I wasn’t able to drive out. I walked out to Kingston Pike to catch a bus, but they didn’t seem to be running, either. So I walked, about five miles, into town. As I trudged across Henley Street, I was embarrassed that I was about an hour late for work. I was sure all these folks from Cleveland and Boston and Chicago would be at their desks, snickering at the snow-cowed Knoxvillian.

But when I arrived at the Andrew Johnson building, I saw only one set of footprints leading in the front door.

The next day, an unembarrassed Ohioan told me, “Well, up north there are these machines that clear the streets....”

Then came the Blizzard of ‘93. Some bring it up as if to prove that it still does snow big now and then. It knocked out power for days, and landed a huge tree on our roof just because it wasn’t strong enough to hold all the snow that had landed on its bare branches. It was 15 inches, but formed deep drifts. Hiking with a friend by the river the next day, I found myself in chest-deep snow and had to swim out.

But that was 13 years ago. My daughter, who’s now old enough to drive, hardly remembers it. She says she remembers only about three snows in her whole life that were big enough to sled in.

Our children outgrew Christmas snowsuits without ever having occasion to wear them.

Statistics can be more convincing than memories, though you might wish we had more of them to look at. For meteorological purposes, I gather, temperature and precipitation, not the accumulation of frozen particulate matter, are the relevant things to keep track of. I was surprised to find our television meteorologists don’t have Knoxville snow data at their fingertips.

But the statistics we do have offer some interesting affirmations of this old-timer’s memories. It did snow more in the old days, though numbers are wildly variable. And whether it snowed more in the old days depends in part about which “old days” we’re talking about.

It’s not easy to find out about snows before the fall of 1934, when the National Weather Service began keeping track of annual accumulation. However, according to statistics compiled for Knoxville by the National Weather Service, mid-century Knoxville saw some years with hardly any snow. In the 1949-50 winter, as well as in the 1951-52 season, for example, there was registered only a “trace” for each whole winter. But the skies were just bottling it up. The most snow in a 24-hour period in Knoxville history—18.2 inches—came the following season, November 21-22, 1952. Even the Blizzard of ’93 didn’t match that one.

Statistics for later years make my memories seem at least plausible. The first winter of which I could have even the dimmest memory is that of 1959-60, and, as it turns out, it had the highest cumulative snowfall since the NWS started keeping records in 1934: almost five feet for the season.

I was not quite 2, and probably assumed it was perfectly normal. Over the next 13 years, every single winter saw more than 10 inches of accumulation. Some years it was much more.

Records kept by the National Weather Service also confirm some other vague memories, like those of White Christmases. It snowed a couple of inches on Christmas Day when I was 4. When I was 11, it snowed seven inches on Christmas—that must have been the bonfire snow, I think. We had another white Christmas when I was a teenager. But Knoxville hasn’t seen as much as half an inch of snow on Christmas Day in almost three decades.

Snow bumped up again for a couple of years in the late ’70s, with a couple of winters that had about 20 inches each. Then, in the ’80s, it fell off. For the years from 1985 to 1995, the average snowfall was just 7.36 inches per season, hardly more than a third of what it had been in the 1960s.

Statistically, what happened next is a little frustrating. When it comes to record keeping, the TV meteorologists all defer to the National Weather Service, which now keeps its regional headquarters in Morristown. I called them, but was told they stopped providing specific snowfall-accumulation records for Knoxville, based on measured snow at the airport, in 1996. What we get after that are records only from the regional headquarters in Morristown, which, being about 500 feet higher in elevation, may get more snow than Knoxville does. Still, Morristown has gotten only a little more than 12 inches of snow a year over the past decade.

But taken altogether, I gleaned that Knoxville must have experienced something like a Snow Renaissance that started in 1959 and ended about 1971. During that 12-year period, the city did indeed get significant snow every single year—about 22 inches a year.

That was just an average. We haven’t had a single season with that much snow in at least a decade.

So I’m not just making this up.

What does it mean?

One thing you might notice on the NWS website is that winters seem a little warmer than they used to. According to NWS data, daily record winter highs are much more common in the last 25 years or so than daily record winter lows. Global warming, or at least municipal warming, seems to be real.

I won’t make any political statements here. I know you have the right to drive cars as big as you want as much as you want, and even if you stopped driving it, it wouldn’t make any measurable difference, that the only way we could make a difference would be by cooperating on a national scale to stop driving so much, and of course massive-scale cooperation for any purpose except World War II would be un-American. I know all that.

Besides, I’m not sure global warming is the main factor. By the common understanding of greenhouse gases, they weren’t as oppressive in the ’40s, when the city averaged less than seven inches of snow per year. Sometimes plain lack of precipitation plays the biggest role. It was plenty cold for snow this past December; we just didn’t get any.

Snow is a crapshoot. Trends in snow may not be any more meaningful than trends in dogs barking, or trends in teenagers egging your car. 

A friend of mine is happy that it doesn’t snow. He’s blind, and snow presents problems. Oh, I hope it doesn’t snow this year, he says. He can’t see snow, and has no use for it at all. I also know it’s a major challenge for emergency health-care professionals and their patients. Maybe it’s better that it doesn’t snow so much.

Still, I think we’re missing something. Snow is iconic, central to American culture. Everybody’s grandmother had a framed Currier and Ives print on the wall somewhere in her house. Movies like Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life not only have snowy settings, but plots that depend on snow.

One of W.C. Fields’ greatest shorts, the one in which he opines, repeatedly, “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!” I don’t know why it always cracks me up. Maybe it’s releasing some suppressed memory of Knoxville in the winter of 1959-60.

A Christmas Carol , the Dickens story that introduced many of the icons of Christmas to America, had a snowy setting. It’s probably the reason people adorn their houses with fake snow at Christmas, even when it’s 72 outside.

Can a kid understand Washington’s trials at Valley Forge without ever having witnessed a real snow?

Even Knoxville’s own indigenous culture is coated with snow. Ice, if not snow, played a role in the Union defense of Knoxville in the late-November Battle of Fort Sanders. Hank Williams spent his last night in the Andrew Johnson Hotel on the last day of 1952 because his plane was forced down by the snow; it was just a month after that all-time record 18-inch snow here. There are lots of stories from the Victorian era of UT students coasting down the Hill on trays or boxes. Recently I watched an unusually early home movie from the Thompson family, from 1931. Black and white, of course, and silent, it shows a few plays of a gray football game, some fire engines racing out of the old firehall on Commerce Street—and, the liveliest scene of all, a spirited neighborhood snowball fight. The accumulation looks pretty thick, but it’s one of the snows that is, as far as the weather service is concerned, prehistoric.

One of local songwriter R.B. Morris’s best-known ballads, “A Winter’s Tale,” appears on his Zeke and the Wheel album, and has been recorded by Nashville stars like Bruce Robinson and Kelly Willis. It’s about a thick, road-stopping East Tennessee snow. Just not a very recent one.

James Agee mentioned snow occasionally, once in A Death in the Family , and more vividly in a bizarre scene set in Knoxville called “Dream Sequence,” in which the protagonist drags a body presumed to be that of John the Baptist through the snow.

Cormac McCarthy referred to Knoxville snows repeatedly in his Knoxville-area novels. Scholar Wes Morgan has found 13 references to snow in The Orchard Keeper , 11 references to snow in the thoroughly Knoxville-soaked novel, Suttree .

In that book, the title character is on the downtown end of Cumberland Avenue, near the demimonde saloon known as the Huddle, when “the brief white quietude among the Christmas buntings and softlit shopwindows seemed a childhood dream of the season and the snow in its soft falling sifting down evoked in the city a surcease nigh to silence.... How the snow fell cherry red in the soft neon flush of the beersign like the slow dropping of blood.”

A couple of months later, from Forest Avenue, Suttree contemplates “Snow falling on Knoxville, sifting down over McAnally, hiding the rents in the roofing, draping the sashwork, frosting the coalpiles in the crabbed dooryards. It has covered up the blood and dirt and claggy sleech in gutterways and laid white lattice on the sewer grates. And snow has made cool bowers in the blackened honeysuckle and it has hid the packingcrates in the hobo jungles and wrought enormous pastry rings of trucktires there.”

It does snow in Knoxville. Or did. We’re missing something, I think. Thousands of sleds sat in basements unused this winter, as last winter.

If snow is all we want, I guess we can always go to the mountains for it. At this writing, I think I can see some snow in the Smokies from my office window. In an hour, maybe, I could be crunching around in real snow for the first time this winter, and it would be beautiful. But it’s so much more interesting to see it hushing the streets and colored by beersigns or frosting the coalpiles of my hometown.

Maybe next year. It’s our motto.